Browsing through a publisher’s catalogue recently, I was captivated by a cover consisting of handmade, down-home montage of a boy, camera and light for a book simply called Our Farm. It was obviously a wittily apt cover by a witty designer, I figured, until I looked through the book and discovered it was a collage created by the book’s writer, Raymond Depardon, made as a sign for the photography studio he’d set up on this farm at the tender age of 15.
Never heard of Raymond Depardon? In France he’s as famous in photography circles as Henri Cartier-Bresson, as highly regarded an experimental film-maker as Fred Wiseman, and as respected a photojournalist as Don McCullin or any other photographer in the Magnum agency, which he joined in 1979 and is now European vice-president of. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize and has made films about everything from political campaigns to mental asylums and desert stories, and he has written dozens of books. So Our Farm, a sweet autobiography about his childhood and early years as a photographer, film-maker and writer, is a bit of a surprise.
In it, Depardon juxtaposes black-and-white images dating back 30 years with sumptuous, full-bleed colour spreads and portraits of the farm today, all alongside a first-person narrative that details his life on – and later off – it. Bucolic scenes of a rural idyll are mixed with portraits of farm workers, family members, cats, cows and everything else in Depardon’s teenage world. Graphic ephemera like postcards of Brigitte Bardot, telegrams, airline tickets and postcards home add to the sense of teenage diary. ‘I like keeping the little things in life, and I think also I was very proud to have become a “photographer reporter” so I wrote a lot of postcards from all over the world to my parents,’ says Depardon. ‘I wrote the book because I began to notice that in my conversations and interviews I drew on my childhood at this farm, and I felt that I needed to fix, or establish, these memories before they faded,’ he explains. ‘Initially, I thought of dictating the text to a friend who’s a writer, but eventually I plucked up the courage to do it myself.’
This hint of timidity is confirmed by Depardon’s insistence that as a child, and for a long time, he was very timid, but it’s somewhat belied by the boldness with which he set about becoming a photographer, as detailed lovingly in the book. It’s hard enough imagining a young boy growing up on a farm deep in rural France just after the war wanting to be a photographer, harder still envisaging the determination that drove the boy to take a correspondence course and diligently complete the weekly written and practical exercises he was set, before plucking up the courage to write to all the Paris-based photo agencies he admired and heading to the city, on his own, at the age of 16 to interview with them. But here in Our Farm is the evidence, portraits marked by unknown teachers with an impressive attention to detail, an early portfolio of work showing experiments with lighting, exposure and apertures that would make Depardon the technical master he is acknowledged as being. But here too is the evidence of his burgeoning ability for arresting, starkly graphic compositions or humanistic portraits achieved by a first-person approach that is at the heart of everything he does, a way of seeing and composing that pulls together his different media, turning what may seem like disparate, broad-ranging projects into a cohesive body of work.
Our Farm is a long way from Depardon’s war work, political films and global city portraits, but it’s at the heart of all those things, he says, because ‘my childhood has always influenced me and continues to influence me. This childhood remained the cradle of the resistance, desire and need for curiosity which are still the driving force of my energy today,’ he explains. It’s also a direction that he is keen to explore further, the sense of quintessential France and rural life that lies at the heart of it, and of every country. ‘I’m happy to have written this book. I have freed myself from something and can now do other things; film the countryside in France, Africa and the world with the advantage of being able to say “that’s who I am and where I come from”.’
Our Farm by Raymond Depardon is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £19.95